After Newcastle’s Alex McKinnon neck broke during a lift in March, a number of commentators and parents have questioned whether football is too dangerous for children, amateurs to play safe.
So, is McKinnon’s injury a bizarre accident, or is it a fair game mishap?
In any collision sport, injury is a relatively common and unavoidable part of the game. The risk of sustaining an injury in a rugby league requiring medical treatment is about 40 injuries per 1,000 hours of playtime. This varies between the level of play (professional vs. club, teen vs. kids, etc.), but usually increases as the level increases.
Early injury data suggest ligament and joint injuries are the most common in rugby, usually occurring in the knee.
Many recent data show head and neck injuries occur most often. This was probably the result of changes to the game rules (e.g. asking defenders to back ten meters, allowing the fixer to strip during handling) combined with increased focus on Stroke – more players are involved in the game than taps, in an attempt to slow down play.
Young players see experienced players making illegal tackles and do not believe this handling is an acceptable part of the game. Unfortunately, their junior rivals may not have anticipated or expected this form of settlement or have the ancient strength of high-end players.
Professional players are also getting bigger, faster, and stronger, leading to greater impact and better recovery to bring players back to the game earlier.
How does it compare to other sports?
It is difficult to compare injury rates, as the definition of injury, the method of reporting and the length of time period during which injury data is recorded differ.
Perhaps the most comprehensive data comes from the New Zealand Accident Compensation Commission (ACC), which records all sports-related injuries that require treatment. These records show 41 moderate to back fracture / dislocations and spinal injuries during a five-year period.
This is the equivalent of football (41) and surfing (45), but substantially less than rugby (178), skiing (199) and motor sports (352).
In Australia, even when all football codes are grouped together, football ranks third in terms of risk of sports-related spinal injury. Sports activities and water activities (diving, surfing activities) each have about twice spinal cord injuries and horse-related activities are not far away.